Assembly elections

The BJP saw Tripura as a significant ideological battle to win, not just a game of numbers

It exploited, to its advantage, the many discontents that had brewed during 25 years of Left rule.

From the start, it was apparent that Tripura was an important battle for the Bharatiya Janata Party to win. Its campaign started early, with large rallies being held in the state as far back as March 2017. National leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, were parachuted down several times into the tiny state.

With Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh turning saffron, Tripura became another crucial stop for the BJP as it spread across the North East. But the intensity of the campaign suggests something more than mere numbers was at stake. The BJP saw this as a significant ideological win, a rightwing party triumphing over a long-running communist government with a popular chief minister.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s mobilisations were visible on the ground, paving the way for the BJP. But on the eve of the elections, saffron politics was not the burden of the BJP’s campaign. While it exploited old social fissures between Tripura’s tribal and non-tribal populations, the BJP pitched itself as the party of development, holding the keys to the Central coffers in Delhi. It also took aim, quite deftly, at the Left’s weaknesses.

So after 25 years of Left rule, Tripura has swung decidedly Right. The BJP looks set to form government in the state along with its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. It is a change reminiscent of the Trinamul Congress’s sweep of West Bengal in the 2011 assembly elections, which ended 34 years of the Left Front.

A map of discontent

The initial stages of counting in Tripura indicate that the saffron party has stormed the red bastion. From no seats in the 2013 assembly elections, it won a majority this time. From a vote share of 1.54% in 2013, it has surged to 42.9%, according to the Election Commission figures on Saturday evening. The Congress, which emerged as the main opposition in Tripura after assembly elections of 2013, has virtually disappeared. So has the Trinamul Congress, which once had ambitions of spreading beyond Bengal into Tripura.

A look at the electoral map suggests the alliance led by the BJP has spread itself across the state, making gains in various constituencies and vote bases. For instance, it has made headway in the state capital of Agartala and surrounding areas, once the stronghold of the Congress. These are largely urban constituencies where Bengalis form the majority. But its ally, the Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura, also shows a surge in tribal areas which fall under the Tripura Autonomous District Council Area. The tribal party, which won no seats and just 0.46% of the vote share in 2013, looked set to win eight seats out of the nine it contested, as of Saturday evening, cornering at least 7.6% of the votes cast.

It is a map that reflects the many discontents of Tripura. This election is a vote against the Left as much as it is a vote for the BJP.

End of Sarkar raj

Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s 20-year tenure has now ended. India’s “poorest” chief minister, who is known for his personal austerity, leaves behind a mixed legacy.

Many in the older generation credit him with pulling the state out of the conflict which roiled Tripura in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2015, Sarkar managed to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a Central law which gives the army powers to open fire and to search and arrest with little judicial accountability, withdrawn from the state. It was counted as one of the major successes of his government.

But the Communist Party of India (Marxist), comfortably ensconced in Tripura for over two decades, must be held guilty of not paying heed to the growing roster of grievances against it. In a state with some of the highest unemployment figures in the country, it did not address the growing restiveness of a new generation with few jobs and opportunities. The Left’s old rhetoric of being a pro-poor party did not find resonance with this pool of young voters while the BJP’s promise of development and social mobility, of jobs and growth appealed to it.

In its last years, Sarkar’s government was swamped by allegations of corruption, which became the launchpad for the BJP’s attack. It wooed thousands of teachers done out of government jobs after the Supreme Court declared that appointments made by the Left were invalid. It also raised the issue of the Rose Valley chit fund scam, which spread to Tripura from Bengal and left thousands of investors in the lurch.

The tribal vote

In the autonomous district council areas, Sarkar ignored the warning signs of tribal discontent. The Left had enjoyed substantial support here, but the last few years saw a steady erosion in this vote base. Sarkar’s carefully crafted narrative of social cohesion seems to have come undone in the past few years. In the state’s tribal belt, the old faultlines between the so-called indigenous population and Bengali-speaking residents, often branded as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, have grown pronounced once again.

It explains why the Indigenous Tribal Peoples’ Front, once a non-entity, is set to win eight out of the nine seats it contested. The party is believed to have links to separatist militant groups, which demanded a tribal state of Twipra carved out of Tripura.

As it tied up with the tribal party, the BJP struck a careful balance, showing sympathy for tribal demands but playing them down when it campaigned in constituencies dominated by Bengalis. It also managed to project the Left as a party which stood for Bengali interests. During the election campaign, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s election strategist in the North East, suggested that Sarkar head to one of three destination: Kerala, the only other state in which the Left remains relevant, Bengal or Bangladesh.

Sarkar may blame the BJP for sharpening local insecurities and separatist demands but his government fell short in vital ways. First, it was unable to dispel tribal anxieties about being “swamped” by outsiders, especially Bengali settlers, and driven out of their ancestral lands. Second, it did not pay heed to a growing sense of neglect in these areas. Tribal voters are bitter about the obvious disparities with non-tribal areas, which, they claim, have cornered any development that may have taken place during the Left’s tenure.

These were failures that proved to be fatal for the Left in Tripura.

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